The £15 million renovation of the iconic Majestic Hotel in Harrogate
- Credit: Alamy Stock Photo
In recent years, Harrogate has suffered from shop closures like any other town. It’s fighting back with various initiatives designed to bring in shoppers, tourists and businesses, reports Tony Greenway
Think of a fine, famous, prestigious grand hotel in the heart of Harrogate. No not that one. That's The Old Swan Hotel where Agatha Christie hid out when she went missing for 11 days back in the 1920s (although it IS fine, famous and prestigious). I'm talking about the other one. The big, palatial number which opened in 1900 on Ripon Road, welcomed Prince Henry of Prussia, the Maharajah of Patiala and a number of Russian grand duchesses; had three bombs fall on it during the war, underwent a renovation programme and has played host to guests from around the world, including numerous celebrities. It's called The Majestic and, in many respects, sums up Harrogate rather well. The majesty of the town has been woven into the fabric of this iconic, stately building.
'We call The Majestic "the Grand Old Lady",' says Hendrik le Roux, the hotel's director of sales. 'Everyone who works there will tell you that you don't choose The Majestic, she chooses you. You fall in love with her and can't help but have a relationship with her. Every day when I drive into Harrogate and onto the Ripon Road and see her climbing above the trees I think: "Oh my God: I work there." She lives and breathes and talks to you.'
Hotels that 'speak to you' are not something you read about very often on TripAdvisor but Hendrik is right. It's an incredible looking Victorian building which is why everyone is familiar with it, even if they haven't stayed there. 'Everybody I speak to, bar none, knows The Majestic,' he says. 'They either know of it, they've seen it or a family member has worked there. I was in London for an event recently and a gentleman said to me: "My first job was at The Majestic".'
In recent years, though, The Majestic has been in the doldrums. It was also damaged in 2010 by a fire which tragically claimed the life of a member of staff. Now, however, a transformation is under way. Now part of the Cairn Collection of Hotels, the building, which opens next year under the DoubleTree by Hilton brand, is undergoing a £15million renovation. When completed, it'll have 170 guest rooms, fitness facilities, a spa and pool and a conference and events space for up to 500 delegates. The reception area is already finished and, by the middle of this month, a new restaurant and a piano lounge will open.
Harrogate isn't exactly short of high-end accommodation but Hendrik thinks the newly refurbished Majestic will attract new business into the town so benefitting the local economy and make other hotels in the area raise their game. 'It'll give them a bit of a kick,' he says. 'They won't want to stay behind the curve. They'll want to catch up.' The Majestic isn't the only hotel showing a new, fresh face to the world, mind you. The St George has undergone a similar renovation and been rebranded as Country Living St George while the old Holiday Inn has become a Crowne Plaza. 'I think it's exciting,' says Hendrik. 'It's good to have a dose of competition in town.'
Harrogate famously has a Bettys (some would say THE Bettys, seeing as the tea room originated here), acclaimed restaurants and delis, numerous antique shops, and is the home of RHS Harlow Carr and The Great Yorkshire Show. It has a general reputation for gentility and refinement. Put it like this: if you're after a good cream tea, you'll definitely find it here.
But that doesn't mean the town has been immune to high street closures. H&M, Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge have all shut up shop — permanently — as have eateries such as Prezzo, Carluccio's and CAU. 'Like any other town, Harrogate has suffered for years since the recession,' says Hendrik. 'And that's really sad. But it's a place with a beautiful independent feel which everybody is fighting to keep alive.'
Ultimately, people need to come in, open their wallets and spend. Sandra Doherty, chief executive of Harrogate District Chamber of Commerce, believes that initiatives such as free public WIFI and smart parking (which, at the time of writing, are on the way although launch dates are yet to be confirmed) will help in that regard. 'It's always been a town that has plenty of forward investment coming in,' she says. 'Anything that helps people to park in town is good for business. And free WIFI is a good thing for the town centre.'
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And now we're in the run-up to the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (™) so, this month, Harrogate will hope to draw in visitors by firing up its Christmas shopping events. The annual Christmas shop window competition returns, as does the Harrogate Christmas Market on Montpellier Hill with 200 stalls, local and regional producers, festive food and drink, artists, buskers and children's rides. The town centre Christmas lights meanwhile will be switched on at 4pm on November 15th at a ceremony at the Victoria Centre. In December, late night shopping is usually every Thursday but subject to change (so check before you set out). On the edge of town, RHS Harlow Carr will also be illuminated for Christmas with its Glow attraction.
Surely, though, Harrogate doesn't have to try too hard to bring in either shoppers or business? Just look at it. It's a handsome sort of place, and one that was voted the happiest town in the UK for three years in a row. So it must already be ahead of the game. No?
'It is,' agrees Sandra Doherty. 'The thing people like about Harrogate is that the work environment is beautiful. You can spend your lunch hour on The Stray — we've lovely green spaces — and the town is friendly. There are plenty of places to eat and meet people and, if you're inviting clients to your office, the area looks good. Plus, of course, it attracts people who just want to work in a nice location. I think we have the highest rate of start-up one-man businesses here — and a lot of IT businesses in particular.'
Hendrik le Roux enjoys the town's up-market feel. 'In spring and summer when the flowers are in bloom and the grass is freshly mowed it has such a buzz about it; and, on a weekend, there's a queue outside Bettys that goes around the corner. Harrogate has its own personality — and it's a joy to be here.'